Pearl Jam, Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

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The Independent Culture

Yes, they're still alive. Almost two decades since the band's formation, and 18 years since the birth of a grunge movement that propelled their debut, Ten, into the history books as one of the biggest-selling rock albums of all time, Pearl Jam remain a potent force, despite an almost paranoid avoidance of the limelight.

Seemingly horrified of fame, let alone "selling out", Eddie Vedder and co have declined most interviews and TV appearances since their debut, refusing even to make music videos as their subsequent albums topped the charts. So it's almost a surprise to recall that they are such a huge act. One that can sell out the O2, which they're playing next week, in 17 minutes.

Tickets for this "intimate" gig at Shepherd's Bush, then, can have been snapped up only by their most ardent fans, and the deafening reception confirms as much. (Full disclosure – I have a vested interest: Ten and Vs were among the first records I ever bought with my own money. So thank you, Pearl Jam, for making me feel 11 again.) Their set opens with a rockier-than-recorded version of "Sometimes" from 1996's No Code, and is filled with familiar hits all the way to "Alive" at the other end of the night.

Kurt Cobain once denied that Pearl Jam were an "alternative" band, and you can see his point. With three guitarists including Vedder, Vedder's Russell Crowe-esque butchness, and guitarist Mike McCready's extensive collection of cock-rock axes (double-necked, flying V, you name it) – not to mention the lengthy solos he plays on them – these days Pearl Jam are without doubt a stadium act.

Apart from a change of drummer, however (to Matt Cameron, formerly of fellow grungers Soundgarden) the line-up of the Seattle scene's last band standing remains unchanged. Vedder has always had an earthy voice that belies his years, but he and his bandmates are now well into their forties. They can still look young, though; when Ronnie Wood joins them on stage in skinny jeans and Ugg boots, for instance, to play "All Along the Watchtower".

Their new, ninth album, Backspacer, is, by Vedder's admission, the most upbeat album of their career, with the single "The Fixer" less a product of the Seattle sound than an evocation of the singer's San Diego surfer roots. An acoustic track (dedicated appropriately to Yusuf Islam, who is also in attendance) that Vedder plays solo as part of the encore is one of the few melancholy moments on an LP of apparently unashamed pop tunes, a few even with strings sections.

The lead single on their previous, self-titled and somewhat gloomy, studio LP was "World Wide Suicide". That Vedder thanks Barack Obama for being elected US president, and that his new lyrics suggest a sunnier disposition, is probably no coincidence.